Vague Patch Notes: It’s not the MMO endgame – it’s the sudden stop at the end

    
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Keeping your garden.

When I first pitched the Vague Patch Notes that ran a couple weeks back, it prompted a big long discussion with MOP’s editor Bree about design goals and how MMOs operate. This is not exactly unusual; we talk about that stuff a lot, even behind the context of what’s going to lead directly to a column. It’s sort of a thing. But it also prompted some interesting discussions about one of her personal bugbears in the form of endgame, which wound up leading into a further discussion about the nature of endgames in MMOs.

Here’s the thing: There are no MMOs without an endgame. In every MMO you reach a certain point where there are no more rungs of power to climb, and you need something for players to do at that point aside from “stop playing.” But there are also games that we think of as having an open nature where the endgame isn’t the entire game, and there’s a distinct difference between those and games where the endgame is a very different beast. And that goes into a talk about the nature of endgames, about reaching the top end, and what actually makes for a sandbox experience.

And yes, it ties into play conditioning. I told you that story so I could tell you this one, like Alice’s restaurant.

Let’s start with some terminology, at least for this particular discussion’s sake. The easiest way to do this is to actually steal from WildStar, which liked to throw around the term “elder game” for its own endgame, but for our purposes we’re going to make the distinction of calling the elder game the portion of the game wherein you have finished leveling, reached a full set of equipment, done all of the requisite skill grinding, or whatever. Endgame, meanwhile, refers to activities which exist only at the level cap in any relevant fashion.

Every game has an elder game. That’s a point when you have completed the climb. Not every game has an endgame, which is confusing, because the terms are technically synonyms.

I love the way you lie.

In Final Fantasy XI, there is a level cap (Level 99, at this point), and while there’s still some leveling equivalent to be done with the aid of merit points and job points, there’s no more content that is gated beyond story requirements. You can, at that point, do whatever you so desire. And the content you can take part in is… largely the same as the stuff that you’ve been doing on the regular before that point. There are some harder modes for certain content, and there are rewards that aren’t really helpful to pursue until you’re level 99, but even just continuing to level for merit points is advantageous.

By contrast, once you hit the level cap in WildStar, the game changed to be a different animal. Your only realistic and worthwhile goal was to acquire more power via gear. (This changed late in the game’s life cycle, but it’s debatable how much of an impact it made.) Instead, you were now being funneled to raids and medal-chasing in dungeons, neither of which had been activities you cared about or even existed during the leveling process.

This, then, is the split. There’s an elder game in FFXI, but the point of the elder game is that the game begins as it means to go on. The point of the endgame is that the leveling process is fundamentally filler, that it’s there to separate out the talentless scrubs who can’t manage to level up, because leveling up is a big accomplishment.

For the record, leveling up has never been an accomplishment. I should do a piece on that. Another week.

Remember how the conditioning article talked about the fact that Final Fantasy XIV tells you that you will be doing dungeons while World of Warcraft lets you totally ignore them all through leveling? This is where that becomes particularly relevant. By the time you hit level 50 in the former, you’ve already experienced the vast majority of what your content is going to be, whether it be for crafting, gathering, or combat jobs; there are still a few more wrinkles to be introduced, but there are no sudden swerves waiting in the wings. The game began as it means to go on.

But WoW… does not. It changes completely between the leveling game and the endgame, and your priorities violently swing in a different direction. Ironically, the game’s daily quests at least kept the questing format standard between the two, but world quests literally do not exist below the level cap; it’s a shift that has an audible clunk, like a car moving from first gear to fourth without bothering to stop at any of the intermediary gears between.

Herein lies the real problem and the reason why terms like “endgame” can become such dirty words. If you’ve been enjoying the game you played up to this point, you’re stuck with a completely different experience once you reach the level cap, one that bears only the broadest similarity to the game you were playing before. If you enjoy the game at the level cap, it feels like the rest of the game is just pointless garbage you need to go through on the way to reaching the real game.

You may not like the style, but it isn't a surprise when you see it continuing.

And this is not really a problem you see in other games. You may or may not like games like Anthem, for example, but those games make their core rotation of gameplay (go shoot some guys, get gear, go shoot bigger guys) part of the game right from the start. Diablo III doesn’t spend a long stretch of time being about choice-heavy narrative gameplay before suddenly throwing you into loot farming.

But then you play Star Wars: The Old Republic and hear the game creak audibly as you move from that choice-heavy narrative into raiding for better and better loot. It’s egregious.

And here’s where we run into that terminology issue. From a strictly “accepted definition” standpoint, games like City of Heroes and Guild Wars are themeparks, both of which are games that Bree herself likes to argue as more akin to sandboxes. From one standpoint, that’s wrong… but when you consider that a defining feature of sandbox games is that they tend to start as they mean to go on, it’s correct. And that raises the specter of how we’re distinguishing between these different styles and what counts as belonging to what genre… a highly relevant consideration when we’re dividing up how we think about games.

The problem, then, is not the existence of an elder game. That’s just the reality of games being what they are; it can sometimes be a very flat power curve (looking at the original Guild Wars here), but there is still a power curve from top to bottom. Rather, it’s a matter of whether you feel like the climb along that curve is a prelude or a preview. And if it’s the former, you’re gong to have a problem where the game suddenly lurches into a new style once you’ve done the leveling.

Or in other words, it’s not the endgame. It’s the sudden shift at the end.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.

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Jim Bergevin Jr

And why Is this? The good ole notion of the gear treadmill. Why did we have the treadmill? Because back in the good ole days of sub-only MMOs, devs needed a way to keep people playing and paying in between those major story content additions. Those additions take time to create, so the treadmill was quick and easy to implement to keep people in the game who had no interest in the boring and niche sandbox type of stuff like crafting and housing

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lostkoss

Interesting discussion.

DDO doesn’t have much of an endgame per se. There are some raids, but it is not the focus of the endgame like WoW is.

DDO does kind of take an interesting approach though. When you get to max level in DDO, you have the option of reincarnating your character and re-rolling it. Starting over at level one, but with a more powerful stat allotment. The stat allotment increase stops after a few reincarnations, but you can attain certain perks and feats along the way with multiple reincarnations leading up to a very powerful character with versatility in the end.

So in effect, DDO’s elder/end game is replaying the game over and over.

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Joseph Groulx

XI did endgame right. Horizontal progression is fantastic, having gear that can be continuously upgraded instead of weekly progression caps and endless carrot dangling like WoW and FFXIV do.

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Witches

Might as well have two (or more) completely different games, and once you finish game A your char is cloned to game B where you can continue playing.

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Ben H

Very interesting read, and mostly accurate :) I will say, though.. Elder Scrolls Online is a rare mix. The “elder game” (max level and champion level 160) encourages your finally to take a much bigger interest in your gear and enchants and such, since that’s finally the strongest your gear will get… However, you get that great by crafting and dungeons.. same as what you did at any point in time starting I think at like level 5. Questing at max level is just as fun and relevant as it is at level 20 or 10 or 48.

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Péter Kozma

After playing WoW from vanilla(stopped during legion) and playing ESO from beta i honestly think ESO solved this the best way (since tamriel unlimited). I loved WoW, but it’s leveling system and “endgame” is too linear and outdated compared to most games these days.

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Ben H

Agreed 100%… I’m in a similar situation. ESO is the only mmo I’ve played where you can do the exact same stuff at any level, and it’s always relevant.

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GamingSF

And this is why I rarely stick with MMOs when I hit the cap…

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Barnoc N'Draak

We do it to ourselves as well

Why do I worry about maximum efficiency in leveling when the journey to Max level is the part of the game I tend to enjoy the most? I think a lot of people do the same, and it’s why so many have less fun than they used to.

I have to force myself to sip not chug

Vaeris
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Vaeris

You say there are no MMOs without an endgame, then proceed to list off a bunch of non sandbox on rails themepark games to make a point. I disagree 100% with you. Games like SWG were certainly games with no “endgame”. I was doing the same things (crafting and selling meds) from the first moment possible to the point I had maxed out my skill trees in SWG.

Games without endgame are a thing, they just aren’t easy for the current crop of developers to make and maintain apparently since there aren’t many following the no levels and making non-combat oriented play just as meaningful form that SWG did. It’s easier to just make 50-100 levels, tack on raiding and PvP and slap “done” on it based on viewing the design choices over the last bunch of years.

Nephele
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Nephele

I have to agree with Vaeris here. While it’s true that many, many MMORPGs are designed around a leveling system that leads you to an “endgame” (or, at least, an “elder game”), there are exceptions. SWG and EVE both come to mind, and there have been others.

My personal opinion is that the endgame “problem” is a consequence of level-based progression. When your progression is a ladder and the only way to go is up, you have to try to figure out how to keep people playing when they reach the top of that ladder. By contrast, if your progression is designed to be broad rather than deep (or more likely, somewhere in the middle), there’s less pressure to figure out how you keep folks playing. Your focus is just on giving them a wide variety of gameplay to go pursue.

Every player is a little different in what they prefer – for me personally, my “ultimate” MMORPG would be a spiritual successor to SWG, with an infusion of concepts from half a dozen different games, and some things (such as housing and player cities) expanded into far more robust and integrated concepts than has existed in any real game to date. Oh, and with a PvE focus, not a PvP one.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t have friends and guildmates that prefer level-based games, and it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them either. But for me to really stick with a level-based game, there needs to be both breadth and depth, and the “endgame” needs to be just a logical extension of the things I’ve been doing all along the leveling journey, not something completely different.

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styopa

I find raiding dull as dirt. There was a time when my ego was boosted by saying “ah we were the first Horde guild to clear Naxx woo!” and managing the precision-dance needed to complete those was hard, and fun.
But not really anymore….even the idea of running the same content over and over utterly bores me to tears now. I’ll level until I’ve got endgame gear, I might run a raid once if its with people I enjoy being with, but not the weekly repeat of the same thing. No way.

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Bryan Cole

Hence why every single time I play WoW, usually with a new expack, I hop out once I hit endgame. I prefer leveling and story over raiding and dungeons. A smart developer mixes those into the each other, like Square with FFXIV.

currently enjoying Anthem and getting excited for division 2 which seem to fit the bill of showing you the game you will play when you hit level cap instead of a jarring 180 into another type of game altogether.